Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Michael Chong and the Canadian Revolution

Well it's not exactly the French Revolution eh? But this being Canada it's probably the closest we can get to one.

Michael Chong has presented his Reform Act that would shake up our Parliament to its very foundations. 

Conservative MP Michael Chong today tabled the proposed reform act, a private member's bill intended to restore a system of checks and balances that would shift some power away from party leaders towards members of Parliament and their party caucuses.

And trim the power of would be dictators like Stephen Harper.

But because this is Canada, already some voices can be heard saying whoa, wait a moment eh? Not so fast.

Given the pre-game hype and the immediate call to arms by supporters of Conservative MP Michael Chong’s democratic reform bill, anyone poking holes in it could stand accused of also opposing motherhood and apple pie.

And like Tim Harper they do have some good points.

The Liberals also seem ready to back Chong. But Justin Trudeau should be careful because the Chong bill would allow a leadership review to be triggered by written notice by 15 per cent of the caucus. The leader can be dumped by 50 per cent plus of the caucus. That means it would take six disgruntled Liberals to trigger a review and a leader who survives is still a wounded leader.

These are matters that require debate. Right now we have a bandwagon, but one of our great democratic deficits is lively debate. Chong would be the first to say let’s slow down and hash this out.

But nobody is suggesting there shouldn't be a lively debate. And like the wise old rabbi, or Andrew Coyne, I can't help feeling if not now, WHEN?

Can’t be done. Too risky. Goes too far. Doesn’t go far enough. Whenever and wherever someone actually makes some concrete proposal to repair our damaged democracy, the forces of inertia almost instantly gather to ensure it never happens. Of course, everyone agrees that something should be done. Just not, you know, this.

All of this, as I say, before anyone had so much as seen the bill, let alone thought about it. All anyone needs to know in this country is that a reform or innovation of some kind has been proposed to come up with a hundred reasons to reject it, on the principle made famous by F. M. Cornford: that nothing should ever be done for the first time.

Because all the Reform Act would do is to return Parliament to its original version, and taking a risk to save our democracy is worth it.

And even if it would mean the odd crackpot slip through, is the chance of such an occasional nuisance worth the extremity of the remedy — handing the leader the power of life or death, career-wise, over every single member of the party? Are we that paralyzed by fear of a little democratic unruliness, that abject in our longing for a strongman to protect us from ourselves?

When compared to the greater risk of losing it altogether.

There are always risks in any reform. But let me propose to you another set of risks. There is a risk that we might allow our elected representatives to become meaningless ciphers, with no role other than to cheerlead for the party leader. There is a risk that Parliament might cease to perform any useful function: not debating policy, not scrutinizing bills, not holding governments to account. There is a risk that our system of parliamentary democracy might become neither parliamentary nor democratic.

So I'm for it eh? Not just because I believe that we're still a young country and we shouldn't be afraid of change. When you're living in a place like Harperland it's not just good it's necessary.

And not just because I believe that it's our sacred duty to make sure that no Canadian leader can ever do again what Stephen Harper has done to this country.

Act like a King instead of a Prime Minister...

Or a power hungry monkey.

But also because I believe we can use this issue to put even more pressure on Harper and hopefully drive him from office before the next election.

Because if both the Liberals and the NDP support the Reform Act, but Harper instructs his Cons to vote against it, we'll look good and Great Ugly Leader will look even more like a dictator.

Which should make him even more unpopular, and by making his Con caucus even more unhappy and divided than it was before, might make him decide to quit sooner than he had planned.

Yup. If we can't have a revolution eh?

Let's turn up the heat, give our democracy a pat on the back.

Or a kick in the butt.

And rock the King to his very foundations...

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  1. Anonymous11:03 AM

    Can't help being cynical on this one, Simon. Chong is essentially saying that we should have a revolution but only after the next election in 2015. Coyne seems to have ignored this point in his enthusiasm to embrace the proposed reforms.

    Why not propose that these reforms be implemented now? BTW, the government is not obligated to implement a private member's bill, even if passed. So what does Chong have to lose by proposing to implement these things now since that was apparently how the Westminster system was supposed to work anyway? The PMO has said that Harper will take time to study this thoroughly, presumably, before he rejects it.

    The opposition parties are in a difficult position. If they do not support this, the Cons will accuse them of being against democratic reforms. Yet if they support this, it is essentially not addressing the problem we have now, which is Harper's dictatorial tendencies. Justin has supported open nominations and I doubt Mulcair could get away with the same antics as Harper.

    In summary, Chong's intentions are likely noble but he should be brave because it ain't going to make any difference with his leader that he is pretending that the reforms are only going to be implemented after 2015.

    1. hi anon...look Chong is no revolutionary, and it's true that his reforms if they pass wouldn't be adopted until after the next election. But we're into a psychological game here, Harper must decide whether to resign and give his successor enough time to prepare for the next election, and in that respect the Chong bill can only put more pressure on him to quit before the shit really hits the fan. As for the merits of the legislation, I'm all for it because we need to make it clear that we live in a parliamentary system not a presidential one....

  2. Anonymous1:19 PM

    "And even if it would mean the odd crackpot slip through,..." Hell it already has there is a few of them on the so-called 'conservative' side of the house!


    1. hi Mogs...yes and that's putting it mildly. There is no doubt in my mind that if the reforms pass the Cons are going to have a real hard time keeping those crackpots from ruining their brand. Or just shutting them up, which will of course be excellent for us.... :)

  3. Canada will never survive Harper. Harper and his Campbell/Clark BC Liberals. they have handed pretty much of all of BC to Communist China now. So, Christy Clark lied and cheated to win her elections, just as Harper and Campbell did. Christy Clark ran up a $10 billion debt for BC, in just one year. Wonder where, Christy's families first lie fits in. Wonder what happened to Christy Clark's 76,000 jobs went, for BC?? I think Communist China, comes first with Christy and Harper. Harper's sellout of Canada to Communist China, began way back, during Campbell's reign of terror, in BC. Christy Clark has just said, BC is broke. We knew that long before Christy did.

    Harper and his BC Liberals belong in prison as, traitors to Canada, for handing Canada to Communist China.

    1. hi gingersnap...well there is still a chance that Harper could be charged, and an even better chance that he will have to resign in disgrace. I would like to see him in jail, but as long as he goes I'm satisfied...

  4. I've only done a quick once over of the bill at this point, but I can't say I am very impressed by it. For one thing MPs can remove their leaders now, including a sitting PM, they just have to be willing to risk losing their government position with it by saying in caucus that either leadership changes or they vote against the government on the next confidence vote, and then back it up if it comes to that. Or, in the case of an Opposition party leader refuse to vote alongside that leader placing public pressure for his/her resignation, the power is already in MP hands, they just need the courage of conviction to use it. I am one of those voices that is of the conservative school of thought regarding changing fundamental powers within a nation-state (and I use conservative here in the non-political/partisan meaning), because the ripple effects from such changes are always profound, so it is something not to be done in haste nor an overly simple manner. I also prefer to see such changes be done in a philosophically consistent manner as possible so as to prevent contradictions that undermine down the road, or open up possibilities worse than the original disease. I am not sure this bill fits that (I am also not sure it does not, as I said I am working from a once over, not having spent hours considering each aspect and how it would ripple out from implementation.

    I am in favour of electoral and procedural reform, always have been. I for example have favoured the ranked ballot approach, because it allows for majority AND it would reduce the acrimony between parties if they all realize they must get some of their competitors base to make it over the majority mark, which would be the case in most ridings. I am less comfortable though with strengthening the ability of MPs alone to determine leadership, especially as parties appear to be moving in the direction of the membership electing that leader, there is an inherent conflict there between wider democracy in electing the original leader and then being subverted by a handful of MPs down the road that needs considering for example. I do think the PMO has taken too many powers unto itself over the decades, and especially under the Harper regime, but exactly how do you unravel the mess without also creating unwieldy governing processes. The problem with too much decentralization of power in any structure is that it makes unified/concerted action that much harder, so there are serious balance issues that must be considered, and I am not sure I am seeing them in Chong's bill.

    I also have some problems with the source himself. For someone that claims to care so much about process and process abuse he has managed to be remarkably silent about so many horrific abuses by his party/government, and even this bill is set to take effect down the road almost certainly AFTER his party loses government (as appears to be the path the CPC is on currently from a combination of scandal and tenure fatigue that happens to all governments that have held power for so long). It also seems a bit of a possibility as your other commentator noted to be a positioning trap for the opposition parties, whether that is the case or not I can't say, but I do not think the possibility should be easily dismissed based on the history of this government, and its timing is also suspect given the desperation of the Harper CPC to find ANYTHING that can change the channel for them to something they can sell as positive from them.

    So I am far less enthusiastic about this than you are Simon. I am a process geek from years/decades back where federal politics is concerned, and my first feelings are of unease when I consider what I read. I am not rejecting it out of hand, I will be taking more time to consider what is in it, and how Chong defends it from questions over the next while, but so far on balance I think this is more sound and fury than substance which would actually improve matters overall.

    1. hi raise many good points, and like you I agree that we need to study the implications. Like for example whether that 15% needed to trigger a leadership review is too low. But remember this is just a first step, and it would take us back to the roots of our parliamentary democracy, which has slowly, probably thanks to the Americanisation of our cuture, evolved into a quasi-presidential one. I have been surprised how many bloggers and others claim that we elect a leader, when in fact all we elect is an MP. You are also right to point out that if the Cons wanted to ditch Harper there is nothing preventing them from doing so under the present system. But as Coyne mentioned it does reinforce that right, and as I told a blogger today, if the Conservatives in Britain could get rid of Thatcher in one day we can do the same with someone like Harper. In the end it may be a largely symbolic move, but symbols are important, and we need to return more power to where it belongs. That may be unruly, but it will be a step in the right direction. Finally, you are also right to say that we neeed to reform our voting system as well. But one step at a time. Until we defeat the Cons we will never be able to do anything. And anything that makes Harper look bad or even worse can only help us achieve that aim...

    2. Simon:

      To your comment about how some people understand our system so poorly that they think we actually elect the PM/leader, I've been dealing with that idiocy for decades as well, I blame the lack of mandatory basic civics instruction in public school for that one. As to Coyne, I am not as impressed by him and his writings as some, I've never forgotten how he jumped onto the Grewal recordings fraud with both feet before any authentication, spent weeks slamming Martin and the Libs for something they never did as it turned out, and then when the fraud was revealed instead of owning up to his mistakes took a vacation and then pretended it never happened. That action showed me someone that does not think as far ahead or in as much depth as one might prefer, also showed that when it suits his own interests/preferences he can be very uncritical when he jumps on a bandwagon. That is not to say he doesn't also write good critical commentary as well, but it has left me far less willing to trust him and his judgment whenever we talk about things that are clearly along lines he himself favours.

      One of my problems is that many of the powers of the MPs still exist, the problem is the lack of will from them to grab them back and use them. I'm with Kady O'Malley on that point. As I said, when it comes to dealing with fundamental powers I am very conservative in how one makes changes, and I am less sure than you that this really is a step in the right direction. I am also worried that you may be so (justifiably, I'm not saying otherwise) wanting to stop Harper that you are letting it get in the way of looking at this issue. Your last sentence to be honest sent a bit of a cold shudder down my spine.

      As to your point about symbolism, again, while I can see the validity on your statement, it is also very much a two edged sword, and acts with symbolic intent can end up having nasty precedent creation power, which goes back to why I am so conservative about this topic. I dislike this idea of a tiny fraction (which 15% clearly is) being able to initiate a formal leadership review, I tend to think it should be either you have the majority and you can depose or leave it alone. This is the sort of thing that can be too easily perverted over time and turned into something which further cripples our system instead of strengthens it.

      Me, I am of the opinion that the problem is far greater than that and the only effective way to really get anywhere is not to deal with it on the MP level of but on the Parliamentary level itself. Part of the reason things suck so much is that our MPs are unwilling to use the powers they already have by virtue of being MPs in a Westminster Parliamentary system of government. So giving them more powers does not fill me with much confidence that they will actually use them, especially when the need may be the greatest.

      My biggest problem with Chong though comes down to his curious unwillingness to call out his own side for the many extremely severe and egregious examples of abuse of power even when he is defending this bill as necessary. He instead goes back to prior Lib governments for examples, and that leaves me seriously wondering about where his real priorities are in this matter. Still though as I said before I am going to wait and see how further examination of his ideas and his bill goes before I make a decision on this one, while I am clearly leaning against it to date it is still early going.

      To be concluded...

    3. Conclusion:

      One last thing Simon, there are some, many even, things where the perfect is the enemy of the good and I agree that any significant attempt for change is a good thing, even when it carries risks. However, when we are talking about the fundamental power structures and mechanisms of our government there I am not so comfortable with the argument that any change is better than none, even given the clear problems currently existing. Perhaps it comes from all the years of studying human history and how laws evolved, perhaps it comes from hard experience showing that the cliche about the road to hell being paved with good intentions is a truism never to be forgot or ignored, I don't know. But I have seen enough in my life to be very very cautious when it comes to playing around with fundamental powers in a piecemeal fashion, and that is another thing about the Chong approach with I am uncomfortable with.

      Please understand, I am not trying to be difficult for the sake of being difficult, I just really care a lot about this stuff, and I worry that despite the best of intentions that some people are getting carried away with this Chong bill before anyone really sits down and seriously works out the various pros and cons actually come from it. It takes real time to do a proper job of such for this sort of thing, and what I have seen so far has not been such from anyone, not even people who have serious interests in real reform like Coyne for example. I'm worried that people are already so invested in this as a real solution that even if after rigorous examination it turns out to be worse than the status quo people have already invested so much of their faith/credibility/passion into it that it is too late. THAT is why I am being so cautious at this stage as much as for any bad feelings I have on the specifics.

    4. hi Scotian...I always appreciate your thoughtful comments, and as I said before we do need to examine the implications carefully, and have a serious debate on the subject. So it's not wrong to be cautious. But remember, it's not like we are stepping completely into the unknown. We would be only returning to the Westminster model, and we would have the example of the British Parliament to help us with our deliberations. People should not be carried away, but considering the state of our democracy a good debate on the subject is something I welcome...

    5. The debate, agreed, that I am happy to see, but I must tell you that I will not be inclined to trust ANY such reform that passes under a Harper majority government as being in the long term best interests of this nation. His record on these issues for the past quarter century and especially his actions since ascending to the PMO leave me with no doubt on that score. Now, having the debate and having full fleshed out ideas and policies by the Libs and NDP for the next election cycle, now that I would be more than pleased to see come out of this process, but this bill itself has a high threshold for me in its own right for the reasons already stated plus the one I just stated regarding my inherent suspicion of any such reform legislation that gets through a Harper majority.

  5. "It's Prime Minister Day!"

    I was eating breakfast with my 10-year-old Granddaughter and I asked her, What day is tomorrow?".

    Without skipping a beat she said, "It's Prime Minister Day!" .

    She's smart, so I asked her "What does Prime Minister Day mean?" .

    I was waiting for something about Harper…..

    She replied, "Prime Minister Day is when the Prime Minister steps out of the Prime Minister Mansion, and if he sees his shadow, we have 4 more years of Bull Shit."

    You know, it hurts when hot coffee spurts out your nose!

    1. hi Edstock... thank you for that great story. I'm going to have to borrow it and try to pass it off as my own. Your granddaughter is brilliant, and I'm more confident than ever that the new generation will save us... ;)

  6. e. a. f.10:26 PM

    Edstock, that grandchild is a keeper.